By Tim McLaughlin / Mizzima
On the morning of September 18, just over 200 residents of the Taung Paw IDP camp in Rakhine State’s Myebon Township made their way down a dusty, narrow path towards the camp’s edge.
Under the gaze of guards in a hilltop watchtower, they walked past makeshift toilets and a small pond that provides the camp with water, eventually exiting the camp. For many, who were relocated to Taung Paw after communal violence in 2012, it was the first time they had left the camp in two years.
Across a one-lane road, just 400 metres from the huddle of wooden huts that comprise Taung Paw, they filed into a local government hall where a citizenship ceremony began at about 9:30am. Government officials spoke about the importance of being upstanding members of Myanmar society. Camp residents swore an oath to the country.
As the ceremony began the surrounding town of Myebon went silent. Vendors closed their stores. The town’s bustling central market fell still. Parents refused to let their children leave their homes, forcing schools to close for the day. Residents locked their doors and shuttered their windows.
The silent protest was organised by the Arakan Women’s Network to express the dissatisfaction of Myebon’s Rakhine Buddhist community with the citizenship verification project being carried out among residents in Taung Paw.
The anger has resonated across much of the state, where citizenship efforts have been met with fierce resistance from groups such as the AWN and political parties such as the Arakan National Party.
“Nearly 100 percent,” of the town participated, said Daw Khin Thein, the chair of the AWN in Myebon. A handful of Christian families that reside in Myebon declined to join the protest.
The AWN has emerged as one of the most vocal hardline groups in Rakhine. Daw Khin Thein’s gold shop, emblazoned with ultra-nationalist “969” stickers, has become a staging ground for anti-Rohingya protests.
Word of the September 18 protest had passed through the town from household to household with the help of local monks.
“We stand for our people,” Daw Khin Thein said. “We cannot accept them [Rohingya] as citizens.”
By 10am the citizenship ceremony had finished and the 209 camp residents had returned to their homes, smoky, dimly-lit structures that lack electricity and stand in a rocky field amid a network of fetid open sewers.
In Myebon, the protest ended, too. Residents returned to the streets and teashops later that afternoon.
During the next four days, 40 people who attended the ceremony were issued with newly-printed pink citizenship cards carefully wrapped in protective plastic. Another 169 were given the green cards of naturalised citizenship.
The ceremony and distribution of the cards were the culmination of a citizenship verification pilot project launched by the government in June to tackle the contentious issue in the impoverished Western state.
Taung Paw residents who wanted one of the coveted cards faced a difficult and deeply personal decision. Most identify as Rohingya, but no such ethnic group is recognised under the 1982 Citizenship Law.
Instead, to be eligible for citizenship they needed to identify as Bengali, the term used by the government, which views them as illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh.
The debate over the name and its citizenship implications has flared since the pilot project started. It has put Rakhine Buddhist residents and the Myanmar government at odds with the United Nations and others who have used the term Rohingya to describe members of the Muslim community.
Most recently UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was criticised for using the term Rohingya in Nay Pyi Taw following a set of regional meetings last month.
Many in Taung Paw had previously agreed to use the term Bengali during the nationwide census carried out in March and April. Sun-faded stickers indicating that members of the households were counted are still affixed near the doors of many homes.
Residents who wanted to identify as Rohingya were not counted during the census after a last minute reversal by the government. It had originally told the UN and other international stakeholders that it would allow those participating in the census to self indentify their ethnicity.
Confined to a camp with no jobs and no easy access to the sea – unlike other Rohingya IDPs who have risked their lives to flee in overcrowded boats to Thailand or Malaysia – some in Taung Paw were willing to begrudgingly accept being described as Bengali again, in the hope it would bring them some form of citizenship status and, in turn, more rights.
But more than two months since the citizenship ceremony, residents who received pink and green cards still have not been able to move freely from the confines of the camp, they said.
The continued restrictions on freedom of movement have stoked fear among Taung Paw residents that that the government has no intention of granting them increased rights.
“I have not been able to leave the camp since the ceremony,” said U Htun Myint a resident and volunteer teacher in Taung Paw, who was given a pink card in September.
Guards at the five watchtowers that ring the camp cite security concerns for not permitting even pink cardholders to leave Taung Paw, say residents.
“They [the government] has not kept its promise,” said U Aung Lwin, another Taung Paw resident and pink cardholder.
The continued lack of freedom of movement has made re-starting their lives impossible for camp residents such as U Htun Myint, who has hopes of resuming his university studies.
“Restrictions on the freedom of movement of hundreds of thousands of people in Rakhine State severely compromise their basic rights to food, health, education and livelihoods,” said Pierre Péron, a spokesperson in Yangon for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
“People simply cannot rebuild their lives and so they continue to rely on international humanitarian aid,” Mr Péron said.
The continued lack of rights for newly granted citizens could seriously affect the larger citizenship process, planned to be rolled out across Rakhine State, said David Mathieson, a senior researcher on Myanmar for Human Rights Watch.
“If this is the prelude to a wider process then it renders clearly how dishonest and disastrous the process will be, as it’s designed to guarantee continued statelessness for the Rohingya and compel them to leave,” Mr Mathieson said.